RIO de JANEIRO – If ever there was a Games that cried out for the glow of a lit cauldron, these are those Games.
If ever there was a Games that presented to so many the deep fear of the unknown, these are those Games: the first-ever Olympics in South America, Rio and Brazil depicted far and wide as danger writ large.
Finally, the familiar symbols of the Olympic movement took hold Friday night, and with them, perhaps, a reprieve. If tradition holds, the next 17 days promise more – way more – of a focus on the inspirational ideal that the best in each of us makes all of us better.
Michael Phelps, carrying the American flag, walked into Maracanã Stadium amid his teammates, not out in front. The refugee Olympic team marched as a symbol of hope. The Austrian men wore leather-looking shorts; the Italian women showed off fabulous red shoes; and, in a zen note of peace that underscored Friday’s grand themes, a 26-year-old female archer named Karma – just Karma – carried the flag for Bhutan.
Brazil’s Vanderlei de Lima, the 2004 men’s marathon bronze medalist and symbol of fair play after an on-course attack during those Athens Games, lit the stadium cauldron.
“We are living in a world of crisis, mistrust and uncertainty,” the International Olympic Committee president, Thomas Bach of Germany, said Friday night. “Here is our Olympic answer.”
This was an opening ceremony that, like the cacophony that can be everyday life in Brazil, offered up a dash of everything:
Fireworks. Song. Dance. Even, in a nod to that most Brazilian of exports, the super-model: Gisele Bündchen.
Well, maybe not everything. Gisele’s husband, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, was not paraded around the stadium in an under-inflated football.
Deflategate apparently didn’t travel here.
The run-up to these Games, however, may have otherwise set an Olympic record for controversy.
Zika. Sewage in the water. Body parts literally washing up on the beach.
Financial recession. Allegations of political and business corruption galore. And more. Way more.
Indeed, in July some Rio police staged a protest at the city’s airport, claiming they had not been paid and brandishing a sign that read, “Welcome to hell.”
It all seemed a cruel riff on the green, yellow and blue Brazilian flag, which proclaims, in Portuguese, “order and progress.” And a grotesque rejoinder to the exuberant declaration in October, 2009, from the then-Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, when the International Olympic Committee picked Rio over Madrid, Tokyo and Chicago: “Now we’re going to show the world we can be a great country.”
What to say about an Olympics in which Lula’s successor, Dilma Rousseff, is facing an impeachment trial?
About an Olympics in which the flame relay suffered through any number of glitches, including when a soldier shot to death a real-life jaguar – the mascot of the Brazilian Olympic Committee – when the animal escaped from its handlers?
About a Games in which an entire country’s athletes arrived under suspicion, shadowed by allegations of state-sponsored doping, the Russians readily caricatured in much of the western press as Cold War-style villains?
With all that – and still more, way more – you say what Bach said at a news conference here Thursday, “There were huge challenges.”
Bach also predicted this week, “In the end, you will see a fantastic Olympic Village and great Games. The Brazilians will overwhelm all of us with their passion, with their joy of life, their great hospitality and with their energy.”
The honorary IOC member Carlos Nuzman of Brazil said Friday night to the roar of 60,00 people, “Those who do not know us have doubted,” adding, “We never give up.” Then he said, “Rio is ready to make history.”
The Olympic historian Bill Mallon put it this way in a recent post to his blog:
“The Olympics bring together the best athletes of the world peacefully, and they bring together hundreds of spectators, fans, officials and other ancillary personnel … in peaceful cooperation and a two-week long party,” adding, “We can never get along with our so-called enemies until we meet them, talk to them, get to know then and realize they are more like us than they are different from us.”
If there is one thing Brazil also knows something about, it’s a party. In Portuguese, a festa.
Let’s get it started.